BLACKBURN Cathedral is one of England’s newest cathedrals, though its beginnings as a site of Christian worship stretch back 14 centuries.
For years George Kirby has conducted guided tours for the many people who have visited this splendid ecclesiastical landmark.
We sit in the Cathedral nave and there is much to take in as we chat below the magnificent Georgian ceiling, the achievement of John Palmer, the architect engaged in 1818 to rebuild the previous parish church on the site.
“Blackburn Cathedral is not as big or grand as York, Durham, Westminster or Canterbury, but nonetheless it is a building to behold and cherish,” said Kirby.
“Visitors perhaps don’t expect to see a church of this quality in a small, northern mill town but there’s so much to appreciate about this wonderful place.
“Perhaps the people of Blackburn take it for granted a little, but I believe they’re very proud of what it represents.
“It is ageless – a blend of a modern cathedral and an old church.”
The weak winter sunshine shines through the 56 coloured panes of the Lantern Tower, completed in 1967, and arguably one of the Cathedral’s most striking features.
The different patterns wash down the walls on to the monumental Portland stone altar and across the slender monolithic, limestone pillars of the nave columns, quarried at Longridge.
The tower was begun and completed in only six months and the spire topped off with a gilded cross, containing a time capsule.
“Blackburn has the only square altar of any English cathedral,” said Kirby, his foot tapping to the sound of the shrill organ pipes.
“When the church lights up at night you can see the beam from the lantern tower for several miles.
“In winter you can always keep your feet warm here because the cathedral floor is heated.”
What’s special about a cathedral, the thing that distinguishes it from any other church, is the presence of a cathedra.
This is the seat of the Bishop, the minister who focuses the life of Christians in a locality, in this case Anglican Christians in Lancashire.
Mention of the cathedra offers an opportunity to draw attention to one of the ancient treasures of the cathedral: a Saxon hammerhead, set on a wooden shaft with a silver wire.
It was discovered in the River Ribble, which flows through the diocese and divides the two archdeaconries of Blackburn and Lancaster.
On a ledge above the choir stairway, stands a representation of the Cathedral’s patron, the Blessed Virgin Mary, commonly known as the Madonna of the Boulevard.
“The statue was carved by William Attwood, one of the stonemasons who worked on extensions to the cathedral, using as his model a Sunday School teacher from St Stephen’s Church, Little Harwood, whom he saw waiting for a bus one day on the Boulevard,” added Kirby.
A steward on duty at the welcoming desk a few years ago was approached by a lady who informed him that she had been the model for this statue, all those years ago.
“It is amazing how much you learn from visitors.
“Some try to visit every cathedral in the country and when they see our building they’re always impressed.”
The Jesus Chapel is central to the worshipping life of the cathedral, regular services are held there and it provides a quiet place for private prayer.
Next door, in St Martin’s Chapel, is the memorial chapel of the East Lancashire Regiment, now the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment.
The Roll of Honour book, underneath the battle armour flags of the old East Lancashire Regiment, records two of the fallen from the current conflict in Afghanistan.
A tablet on the south wall lists the seven members of the regiment who were awarded the Victoria Cross for valour from the Crimea to the terrible slaughter of Gallipoli.
“On Somme Sunday the officers gather at the cathedral to commemorate perhaps the most difficult day in the regiment’s history when, of the 700 men of the regiment’s first battalion, all of whom were sent into action on July 1, 1916 as the battle of the Somme began. 463 were killed,” he said.
“It is a tradition that is just as poignant today as it ever was.”
Blackburn is also known for the excellence of its music and worship. The cathedral was, after all, the building in which Kathleen Ferrier, singer and international diva, had her early singing lessons.
Turn away from the main altar and face the west door, the cathedral’s main entrance, and John Hayward’s imposing aluminium and fibre glass statue Christ the Worker asserts its symbolic presence.
Arms outstretched, his dramatic sculpture is set against a metallic shape suggesting a loom, the warp and weft of whose cotton threads are woven to form a cloth behind the figure.
“It is a very moving image and the loom is a reminder that Blackburn’s expansion as a town in the Industrial Revolution was based on the spinning and weaving of cotton,” said Kirby.